Allen White

Agency has played a central in shaping the arc of human rights in the postwar period. Sovereign states, multilateral organizations, civil society, faith organizations, families—all have played the role of norm-setter, enabler, and violator. Kathryn Sikkink’s incisive piece focuses on states and multilaterals. Various commenters describe the contributions of civil society, faith groups, and families. Álvaro de Regil Castilla forcefully adds the corporation—and the larger global capitalist system within which it operates—as a critical actor (or roadblock) in building a rights-based, flourishing planetary future.

The link between the corporation and human rights in a globalizing world derives in large measure from the growing concentration of market power across a broad swath of industry sectors. Annual revenue of the five largest global corporations exceeds $250 billion, more than the GDP of 75 percent of the world’s nations. In the technology, aircraft, farm equipment, e-commerce, and many other sectors, a handful of companies dominate global production. In nations such as China and Russia, favoritism toward state and quasi-state enterprises adds to such domination. The Chaebols of Korea; the former state-owned, privatized Russian extractive industry enterprises; and the Japanese zaibatsu all represent organizations with immense economic and political clout.

With scale comes market power, and with market power comes the unleashing of tendencies toward rent-seeking via profit and share price maximization. Such behavior, in turn, is prone to compromising the human rights of workers, communities, and customers associated with both direct company operations and their far-flung global supply chains. While numerous initiatives such as the UN Global Compact, the Global Reporting Initiative, and Corporation 20/20 have achieved incremental improvements, the structural conditions underlying human rights transgressions in business operations remain essentially intact.

The interplay between corporations and human rights points to the larger sociopolitical landscape within which the struggle will unfold in the coming decades. Just as the boundaries of human rights have steadily enlarged—Sikkink’s “expansive” attribute—synergizing with kindred movements is a prerequisite to accelerating progress toward a full-bodied, rights-based future.

Gender equality, indigenous peoples, new economy, climate justice, guaranteed minimum income, universal health care, nuclear disarmament—these and other social movements intersect with human rights in both spirit and substance. All are rooted in justice, security, freedom, inclusiveness, and resilience. The shared values constitute the foundation for a unified yet plural meta-movement that awaits crystallization.

Human rights are a beacon of the possible, a story of moving a bold vision from the implausible to the inevitable. It is a historic moment for a multi-domain, multi-scalar meta-movement to follow the same trajectory toward the systemic change that Earth so desperately needs.

Allen White
Allen White is Vice President and Senior Fellow at the Tellus Institute, where he directs the institute’s Program on Corporate Redesign. He co-founded the Global Reporting Initiative and Corporation 2020, and founded the Global Initiative for Sustainability Ratings. He has advised multilateral organizations, foundations, government agencies, Fortune 500 companies, and NGOs on corporate sustainability, governance, and accountability.

Cite as Allen White, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Human Rights," Great Transition Initiative (April 2018),

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